Former Employees Of A Beloved LA Movie Theater Describe Sexism In The Workplace
“When I started volunteering, I was told he liked to test the new meat,” a former Cinefamily volunteer said. Cinefamily’s cofounder responds to the accusations.
After two top executives at a beloved Los Angeles movie theater resigned last Tuesday (Aug. 22) amid a sexual misconduct scandal, the cinematheque distanced itself from the alleged inappropriate behavior. “Our nonprofit organization has zero tolerance for any action intended to harm or injure our staff, volunteers, or patrons,” a press release from Cinefamily said. Only one harassment complaint had been filed in the past two years, the statement continued. But on Saturday, a second statement took a more self-reflective tone, saying the theater was suspending all activities to allow for an outside firm to investigate alleged impropriety. On Sunday, the board president told BuzzFeed News he, too, had resigned. Sources close to the board said on Monday that they were working to appoint new leadership for the organization as soon as possible.
Over four days last week, in interviews with BuzzFeed News, 17 former Cinefamily employees and volunteers described endemic sexism dating back to the organization’s earliest days, much of which was chronicled in complaints to management. The former employees said the now-former board vice president, Shadie Elnashai, had a reputation for inappropriately hitting on staff and volunteers — screenshots provided to BuzzFeed News show the now-former board president Simon Oré was informed in 2016 that Elnashai was inappropriately pursuing volunteers at the nonprofit theater. And the former employees said that even aside from the settled 2014 sexual harassment lawsuit against cofounder and now-former executive creative director Hadrian Belove, he was known to use the female volunteers as a dating pool and openly had sexual relationships with his employees. Executive Managing Director Trevor Jones wrote to BuzzFeed News that when he started two years ago he made it clear that relationships between higher-ups and subordinates were unacceptable, and he was never aware of any relationship of that nature. But screenshots provided to BuzzFeed News show Oré acknowledging in 2016 that the “only reason [a staff member] is there is cause H wants to Fuck her.”
“My god, capital YES,” said one woman who worked at the theater on and off for the better part of a decade when asked if Belove hit on volunteers. She and former theater manager Anthony Cutrone said they had seen Belove leave through the back door of the theater late at night with many volunteers. Karina Chacham, who volunteered on and off at Cinefamily from 2010 to 2016, told BuzzFeed News, “When I started volunteering, I was told he liked to test the new meat.” Other former employees echoed this, saying Belove would gravitate toward pretty young women. Chacham said she witnessed Belove receiving oral sex from a volunteer in a backyard at a party with employees present. There was a pervasive culture of misogyny in the workplace which one male former programmer, William Morris, went as far as to call “an active rape culture.”
In response to a detailed summary of the contents of this article, Belove said in a statement that over the last decade he had terminated many people, and “sadly many of these bitter ex-employees and their friends have banded together and sought to destroy Cinefamily through a campaign of false accusations to the media.” His complete statement is at the bottom of this article.
The problems were there from the beginning, former theater manager Matt Cornell said. Cornell, who said he wrote the theater’s mission statement with Belove at his kitchen table in the summer of 2007, told BuzzFeed News he proposed that the theater should have a sexual harassment policy. Belove, he recalled, showed “absolute contempt for the idea. ... He didn’t want to do things like a normal, socially responsible business would,” he said.
A woman who worked at Cinefamily when it started said Belove told another man right in front of her that he “started Cinefamily to get laid.” While she worked there, she said he was “sleeping with employees, including someone I managed.” That person was then promoted over her, she said. Jackie Gomez, a former office manager, said she recalled the same woman who got the promotion getting “preferential treatment” from Belove.
Belove denied that he gave preferential treatment to employees he dated. In the statement provided to BuzzFeed News, he said he was single and had a limited social network because of his demanding work schedule, so from 2007 to 2011, “I dated about 3-4 employees while I worked there.” He added that “when I saw that inter-office dating caused disruption in the workplace, I stopped it. I haven’t dated anyone who worked there for many years.” Jones responded that the alleged preferential treatment predated his time at Cinefamily, but “if this happened in the way described then it should have resulted in discipline and likely termination. This type of behavior must never be tolerated, and certain[ly] never occurred since my joining.”
While nothing in California or federal law totally prohibits workplace sexual relationships, those involving bosses and subordinates can lead to problems and open an organization up to liability, including quid pro quo relationships (a form of sexual harassment), favoritism, and exploitation — or even just the appearance of those issues.
Cornell recalled discussing American Apparel sexual harassment scandals (there were several in 2007 and 2008) with Belove around the same time; he remembered that they argued about how that company preferentially hired attractive young women. “[Belove] said we should be doing the same thing because it would sell more popcorn,” Cornell said. Similarly, Mario Muñoz, who started as a volunteer coordinator in 2012, said Belove told him they needed more “hot girls” to be volunteers. Nedjelko Spaich, a former membership director, said that at least twice Belove told him to “fire certain employees because they weren’t attractive enough.” According to Spaich, Belove said it was imperative that “the first face you see in the ticket window is a beautiful face.” Cutrone, the former theater manager, said, “When I hired women that he didn’t think were attractive, you could tell he had some kind of grudge,” explaining that Belove would be cold and distant toward them.
Former volunteer coordinator Hayley Pogue felt that because she didn’t fit Belove’s physical ideal of a sexually attractive woman — several sources described the executive’s preference as “waifish,” and one person described his type as “Sharon Tate” — he treated her differently. “He really saw no point to me,” said Pogue, who worked at Cinefamily from 2013 to 2014. Another woman reiterated Pogue’s contention, saying Belove saw two types of women in the world: “The ones he can sleep with, and the rest of us are just to yell at and do his bidding.” A female former assistant programmer said she noticed Belove would ask her to make coffee specifically when visitors were watching.
Pogue said Belove physically grabbed her at least twice, at one point dragging her “jerkily and harshly” to the office coffeepot and forcing her hand through the motions of making coffee: “I left my body,” she said. Spaich, who usually made the coffee but hadn’t that morning, said he heard Belove angrily tell Pogue, “You’re the office secretary.” The female former assistant programmer said that while one male programmer mentored her, Belove always made clear, “You’re the assistant to the programmer. … Like he had watched Season 1 of Mad Men and said, ‘This is great,’ and never watched the rest of it.”
Several people indicated that there was no formal human resources administrator until after the 2014 sexual harassment lawsuit (detailed in this complaint). When an HR position was finally established after the lawsuit ended, Belove appointed a woman he was close friends with and maintained an openly flirtatious relationship with her. Some former employees said they did not feel comfortable going to her with problems because of her coziness with Belove. The staffer who handled some HR issues did not respond directly to BuzzFeed News’ request for a comment on those circumstances, but wrote, “Some of the ways this is being handled in media and on social media is irreparably damaging the lives of many women affiliated with or working at Cinefamily, that everyone is purportedly trying to help.” She did not respond to questions asking for clarification.
When workers did complain, they were often brushed aside or penalized, former employees said. Gomez said that in 2010 when she realized a male employee was making almost twice as much money as a female employee in a similar position, she brought the issue to Belove’s attention; days later, her office manager position was eliminated, Gomez said. A 2014 volunteer said that when an influential patron of Cinefamily started calling her on the phone and masturbating, she told staff members and got the distinct impression that there was no recourse for her because he was “far more important than [her].” Another former employee said she complained to board members and executive managing director Trevor Jones in 2015 about Belove, reporting that he’d had a “next-level man tantrum” and thrown things at her. “It was terrifying,” she told BuzzFeed News. In response, she said two board members — Elnashai and board president Oré — told her the incident was “he said, she said” and they couldn’t address it.
That female source contacted BuzzFeed News because she was concerned that the current attention on Belove was distracting from the men who shielded and enabled his and Elnashai’s behavior. She was also bothered that the story was currently being framed by journalists as one that “exposed” the harassment lawsuit. She said that a copy of court documents related to Belove’s 2014 sexual harassment case was left sitting out for months in Cinefamily’s office. She believed it was a sign that the sexual harassment was acceptable. Chacham remembered it too: “He knew he would not ever get in trouble,” she said.
Additional internal emails provided to BuzzFeed News reveal how, in November 2016, female employees complained in an email thread that included Jones about a frequent patron who, as one staffer wrote, “makes women uncomfortable including myself.” According to former employees, no action was taken by management against the guest, although Jones wrote back, “This complaint will be handled appropriately and professionally,” before scolding employees for airing their grievances “in an email thread.” One of the women who chimed in on the thread told BuzzFeed News she was “directly pulled aside” by Belove, who told her the frequent guest was “a really important journalist and movie critic” and couldn’t be banned.
Jones said that during an investigation of this claim, two of the women who complained in emails said it was their primary concern that the guest had been sneaking into and out of the theater and not that they were “afraid” of him. The guest, he said, was warned that the next complaint would lead to his banning. “I am a daytime employee and seldom interact with the guests,” Jones said. “It was decided, because of this, that Hadrian would [be] a better candidate to deliver that message.”
An email provided to BuzzFeed News revealed how Jones responded to a harassment complaint against Elnashai filed in August of last year. “I have related the contents of your report to Shadie Elnashai and I have informed him that effective immediately he is prohibited from any romantic or physical interaction with any female employees or volunteers of the Cinefamily,” Jones wrote to Morris, who made the complaint, which, according to Morris, included allegations that Elnashai had inappropriately touched a woman in the theater. Jones continued in the email: “Should any such interaction occur off site, it must be disclosed to the Executive Director's Trevor Jones and Hadrian Belove or it will be assumed to have been unwelcome, and additional action will be taken.”
Elnashai in particular was known to make women uncomfortable, said a woman who worked on and off at the theater for the better part of the last decade. “A lot of girls would verbalize it the second it happened,” she said. And she thought Elnashai’s motives for being there were clear: “It’s wasn’t like, Oh, Shadie loves movies. … Shadie doesn’t watch the movies — he just hits on girls in the back.” She herself recounted that in early 2016, Elnashai approached her on the theater’s private patio, then “picked up my drink, and drank it.” He then stepped closer to her, she stepped away, and he stepped toward her again, stepping away only after she said she had a boyfriend. “It was as though I had been tagged,” she said. “Like I was a hooker — like ‘all the women in the parlor are yours!’” She informed a programmer that he had made her uncomfortable.
“I am unaware of this incident, and I am disappointed that this programmer never brought it to my attention,” Jones said in response to the latter accusation. Elnashai did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.
The resignations of Belove and Elnashai have clearly roiled Los Angeles cinephiles, who revere Cinefamily as an artistic institution. “It’s turned into a weird civil war,” said the female former assistant programmer. Belove has vigorously defended himself, calling the claims against him “a whisper campaign” in a now-deleted post on Facebook. As one former donor put it to BuzzFeed News, the drama has played out “like a terrible Pynchon work terribly adapted by David O. Russell, down to everyone's first and last names.”
The toxic culture in which Belove’s behavior was the norm at Cinefamily came through in Oré’s messages about a female staffer he believed the cofounder had hired because he “wants to fuck her.” In that message, he continued: “I pulled him aside and told him - ‘you know you’re not allowed. You’re not allowed to fuck that girl.’ - and he said yeah I know - and I said - seriously man. I won’t say it again, but you can not. OR you can’t hire her. -- but I know that in the end he’s going to do whatever he wants.”
Here is Belove's full statement:
I co-founded Cinefamily because I wanted to help make going to the movies fun again and believed that the key was creating a sense of community. I’m proud of what Cinefamily became – a venue that has given a home to thousands of films that otherwise would not have played in Los Angeles.
I wish all the best for Cinefamily and the theater, its employees and volunteers. Los Angeles needs a place like this – a home and audience for independent films, and a unique place for so many displaced angelenos to find each other.
During my time there, I was single and spent virtually 100% of my free time at the theater. I often worked 16 hour days and often slept in the office. With a limited social network, I dated about 3-4 employees while I worked there, all in the early years of 2007 to 2011.
I did not give preferential treatment to employees I dated. There was no quid pro quo. But when I saw that inter-office dating caused disruption in the workplace, I stopped it. I haven’t dated anyone who worked there for many years.
Let me be clear about one thing: Sexual assault is a crime. If I had been told about a sexual assault, I would have encouraged the employee to report the matter to the police. I would have also initiated a personnel investigation and done all I could to support the employee.
Over the last decade, I terminated the employment of many people – some for performance; some because of the theater’s financial problems – and sadly many of these bitter ex-employees and their friends have banded together and sought to destroy Cinefamily through a campaign of false accusations to the media. I can only hope they do not succeed.